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Business as Usual: Why ‘the Handshake’ Has Had Little Impact on the Fortunes of the Luo People

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“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.

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Business as Usual: Why ‘the Handshake’ Has Had Little Impact on the Fortunes of the Luo People
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“The Luo community is happy Raila is back at the centre,” intoned our physician friend, Dr Sam Owino. In the last twelve months, since the surprise political rapprochement between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his antagonist-in-chief Raila Odinga, the talk about town has been how the Luos are now reaping from the so-called “Handshake”. “We’re no longer the political bogeyman of the state,” reiterated the Nairobi physician. “It has never been fun carrying the tag and burden of oppositional politics in the country for all these years.”

After the Handshake, which had been preceded by a piercing palpable tension across the country, Raila, the leader of the nascent opposition outfit, the National Super Alliance (NASA), broke ranks with his colleagues Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula to sue for peace with President Uhuru of the Jubilee Party. “Koro wan eisirkal,” (We’re now in government…we’re no longer in the opposition) said Raila soon after the Handshake, a statement that was reiterated by President Uhuru. A visitor to the country soon after the combustible double elections would never appreciate and digest fully the import of that statement.

No community in Kenya has borne the brunt of the state’s political malice and economic sabotage than the Luo people, observed Oduor. “The Luo people have suffered the greatest political harassment and assassinations in this country, starting with Argwings Kodhek, who was killed in January 1969…”

To a section of the Luo community, “being in the political cold,” is a phrase they identify with all too well. “The Luo people have been in the opposition effectively since 1966, when President Jomo Kenyatta shunted his Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga,” said Bernard Oduor, an advertising and marketing manager of a Nairobi-based publishing company. “Let another community shoulder the weight of being always on the receiving end of the state’s anti-development brutal policies and constant violence.”

No community in Kenya has borne the brunt of the state’s political malice and economic sabotage than the Luo people, observed Oduor. “The Luo people have suffered the greatest political harassment and assassinations in this country, starting with Argwings Kodhek, who was killed in January 1969. Six months later, Tom Mboya, perhaps the greatest of Luo leaders, was killed, possibly by the same forces that took care of Kodhek through a freak accident.”

That same year, 1969, the government detained Jaramogi with other Luo leaders for standing up to Jomo and the Kiambu Mafia’s imperial tendencies, recalls Oduor. “It was a cruel testament of the political harassment by the successive government of Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi that by the time multipartyism was being re-introduced in Kenya, in 1991, Jaramogi was already frail, old and sickly.” A multiparty election was held in December 1992 and Jaramogi was elected the MP for Bondo. A year later, on January 20, 1994, Jaramogi was dead.

From 1963 to 1978, Kenya had been a de facto one party state. But in 1982, just before the attempted military putsch led by Kenya Air Force officers on August 1, 1982, the country become a de jure one party state, after Jaramogi and George Anyona, the firebrand politician from Gusiiland, walked to the registrar’s office at Sheria House and demanded to register their party – the Kenya African Socialist Alliance (KASA). Feeling threatened by the duo’s courage and determination to register a new party, one afternoon Moi summoned MPs and asked them to change the constitution to make Kenya a one-party dictatorship.

“Even though Robert Ouko, the brilliant foreign affairs minister, worked for the Kanu government and was a loyal lieutenant of Moi, they still got rid of him, proving that no Luo politician was good enough for a Kenyan government,” opined Oduor. “It has been a tortuous long journey and it’s time we enjoyed some respite.”

Broken promises    

In the aftermath of a contested August 8, 2017 election and the subsequent boycott of the second presidential election on October 26, 2017, the state visited violence on members of the Luo community in Nairobi County, and especially in the lakeside town of Kisumu, which is perceived as a base for the Luo community. In both cities, hordes of youth from the ghetto suburbs of Kibera and Mathare in Nairobi and Nyalenda and Kondele in Kisumu rioted, protesting the gross mismanagement of the election procedure. Many of the youth who were felled by the bullets of state security personnel were Luo youth.

“The Handshake was meant to cool the political temperatures, which were threatening to soar overboard,” said Steve Ochuodho, a researcher in African history. “It was to allow for the country to go back to its normal self and stabilise, with the aim of the country hopefully taking off economically. True, the country stabilised, but nothing much has really happened thereafter.”

The promises that Raila made after the Handshake, ostensibly to the Luo community, are nothing new, explained Ochuodho: “They are the same promises Raila has been making since 1997 when he merged his fledging National Democratic Party (NDP) with Kanu. Since then, it is the Odinga family that has continually grown rich at the expense of the Luo people…”

“Contrary to popular belief being peddled by ‘Raila evangelists’ that the Luos are now in government, nothing could be further from the truth,” noted Ochuodho. “Luos aren’t in the government and more than ever before, they are languishing in poverty. I fret every time I hear that Luos are now enjoying and I ask: Which Luos are these? If there are any Luos in government, they must be Raila’s friends or his relatives from Siaya County,” added the researcher.

The promises that Raila made after the Handshake, ostensibly to the Luo community, are nothing new, explained Ochuodho: “They are the same promises Raila has been making since 1997 when he merged his fledging National Democratic Party (NDP) with Kanu. Since then, it is the Odinga family that has continually grown rich at the expense of the Luo people. Because of these Raila Handshakes, the Luo people are treated as the Odinga family’s captives to be traded with politically any time the family wants to reap financially from the existing government.”

“There are no deliverables, neither are there fruits to be harvested from the Handshake,” said Ochuodho. “All what we are hearing is what it intends to do, It is classic political brinkmanship.” All what the Handshake has done is to entrench even further retrogressive leadership in Luo Nyanza.”

“Through the Handshake, Cyprian Awiti, the Homa Bay governor, came back. Every Luo voter, wherever he or she was, knew Awiti was never going to survive a by-election if the court upheld the petition.” Former Kasipul MP Oyugi Magwanga had successively petitioned both the High Court and the Court of Appeal, only for the Supreme Court to uphold his election victory in August 8, 2017.

With the coming by-election in Ugenya, Raila has already told the voters ahead of time that they should not let him down – that they should return Christopher Karan, who the court found had engaged in electoral malpractices, pointed out Ochuodho. “Kik ukuod wiya jothurwa, (Please don’t embarrass me), Raila told the voters when he went there recently. Even though Karan is unpopular, the ODM party still gave him a direct ticket.” David Ouma Ochieng, Karan’s chief opponent and the immediate former MP, whose petition was heard by the High Court in Kisumu, will be mounting a soap box when the by-election comes up on April 5, 2019.

“The Luo people were not ready for the Handshake,” said Mike Osilo, an information technologist in Nairobi. “Because they were ready for war. The state’s unceasing violence against the Luo people had created in them an appetite for unstoppable bloodshed. They were prepared to go the whole hog.”

Osilo said this hardline stance had been fomented during the October 26 fresh presidential elections when elections did not take place in four Nyanza counties (Homa Bay, Kisumu, Migori and Siaya). “For the first in the history of post-independent Kenya, a people had successively held back a state with all its militarised violence. From then on, the people decided there was no turning back and then the Handshake happened.”

“The Building the Bridges Initiative, the result of the Handshake, has now become a parastatal,” quipped Osilo. “It was meant to give jobs to the favoured boys. Everything is business as usual. If the Handshake and its appendage, the BBI, was serious in developing Luo Nyanza, it would have started by reviving Ahero Irrigation Scheme and the Chemilil, Muhoroni and Sony sugar factories…”

Osilo said Raila’s Handshake compensation promise to the families that lost their relatives in the last election, especially in Kisumu, has remained just that: a promise. “Immediately after the Handshake, Raila went down to Kondele, the site of the greatest state violence visited on a people. Scores of youth were killed by the GSU and Raila that night told their families that the government was going to compensate them. The people were in a very uncompromising mood, but Raila managed to calm them down. Twelve months later, there is nothing to show for that promise.”

“The Building the Bridges Initiative, the result of the Handshake, has now become a parastatal,” quipped Osilo. “It was meant to give jobs to the favoured boys. Everything is business as usual. If the Handshake and its appendage, the BBI, was serious in developing Luo Nyanza, it would have started by reviving Ahero Irrigation Scheme and the Chemilil, Muhoroni and Sony sugar factories, for instance. When I hear people talking of deliverables through the Handshake, I wonder where these deliverables are to be found.”

“Let it be on record: The much talked about dredging vessel brought to Lake Victoria actually preceded the Handshake – Raila just hijacked its launching on January 19, 2019. Likewise, the ongoing resuscitation of the Kenya Breweries Limited plant in Kisumu is not a product of the Handshake: KBL had already given the farmers the go-ahead [before the Handshake took place] to start sowing sorghum. As for the ferry transport on Lake Victoria, the World Bank had already mapped the lake for its Lake Victoria Transport programme as far back as 2016,” noted Osilo.

“One year down the line, the Handshake had become a forum for exchanging insults,” said Ochuodho. “Those who used Ruto to thrust a poisoned dagger into Raila’s back are the same people who are now are using him to stab Ruto in the back.” In Ochuodho’s view, “Canaan had become a mirage”, whose climax was deporting Joshua Miguna Miguna, a deportation Ochuodho squarely blames Raila for. “I can tell you this, the Handshake will not last – it will soon collapse, and after it collapses, Raila will walk away in shame, this time accompanied by old age.” The referendum which is supposed to be the outcome of BBI is “already poisoned,” summed up Ochuodho.

No bridges built in Kisumu

In the lakeshore Kisumu city, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)’s first anniversary went unnoticed. The residents we interviewed were resolute that the Handshake was still a puzzle and shrouded in mystery. Hence, the rapprochement means different things to different people. One year after it took place, it still dominates public discussions, eliciting more questions than answers.

“Did the Handshake simply substitute Luo-Kalenjin elite rivalry with the Luo-Gikuyu elite one? Are the Gikuyu elite now holding the ring between Raila Odinga and William Ruto? Who really is our enemy?” posed a middle-aged man at the Bunge la Wananchi (Peoples’ Parliament) meeting taking place under the huge canopy of an oak-like tree off the Kisumu-Kampala Road where real politik is earnestly and hotly debated during the lunch break.

For some of Kisumu’s residents, what the Handshake has succeeded in doing is resuscitate puzzling questions that revolve around Raila’s political deftness and survival instincts. “Raila’s an avid football fan and right now he has the ball…will he, this time just get away with a high ball against William Ruto? If he does, will Ruto, stand between him and the goal? Or, will he this time finally score the winning goal, now that the referees of the presidential tourney seems to be on his side?” mused Willis Ochieng. “Ruto is not a leader, he’s a dealer. There’s no doubt he would be bad for the country – he’s unsympathetic to the feelings of the people. But that aside, the big question that has been disturbing us is, just what is in it for the rest of the spectator crowd?

At the Kondele highway interchange, we met Shem Matiku, a cobbler who plies his trade below the interchange. Kondele was the site of fierce battles between the battle-hardened youth of the sprawling ghetto, who fought back the paramilitary police, the General Service Unit (GSU) in August 2017 after the first presidential election. Matiku had since put that terrible period behind him: “I’m an optimist. I believe Raila has the best interests of his people. Uhuru, unlike Ruto is not a hardliner, he could be a hard bargainer, but a bargainer nonetheless and that is why he made a pact with Raila.”

“Ruto’s too forceful,” reflected Matiku, in between shining his customers’ shoes. “It is as if he’s forcing the people to elect him: it’s either his way or the highway.” The cobbler observed that until Raila went into government, development in Luo Nyanza was lopsided. “Now we’re beginning to see some development our way: Kenya Breweries has reopened its factory and construction of roads has commenced and corruption is being fought…you know what…Raila helped Uhuru see state corruption in the government. Let the spirit of the Handshake flow. We support it one hundred percent.”

However, George Collins Owour, an astute civil society leader, is utterly unimpressed by the Handshake. “We wanted to put up a monument in honour of the victims of political violence, preferably at the Jomo Kenyatta sports ground and have Raila Odinga launch it,” said Owuor. “A monument that would tell the story of the victims of political violence, and a constant reminder to the youth of the dangers of political violence, while at the same time establishing a link between poverty and politics. The monument had been also intended to occupy a space for discussing political violence and how it distracts and destroys lives of many unhinged youth. It would remind them of the dangers of disorganised and unhelpful protests and thereby discourage them from participating in them.”

“The youth are always ready to participate in protests, but where are they now? Some were killed and maimed, others were arrested and falsely accused of robbery with violence and are now languishing in jail, having been forgotten,” lamented Owuor. “The irony is that the county government of Kisumu, while rejecting our proposal, was quick to fast track its own plans of erecting a statue in memory of Jaramogi Odinga.”

“Jaramogi initiated the Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation, which inspired small- and medium-scale business initiatives in Nyanza region. As a social democrat, Jaramogi also led popular grassroots movements for political and cultural awareness in the whole of East Africa,” said Prof Anyang Nyong’o, the Governor of Kisumu.

While the contribution of Jaramogi among the Luo community is in no doubt and cannot be contested, whether in Luo Nyanza or, indeed the entire country, to seemingly bury the history of the youth, who have paid with their lives for fighting for democracy, is callous and deceitful, bemoaned Owuor. “Let us not kid ourselves – the Handshake has not worked for the youth: the boda bodas (motor cycle riders), street vendors and hawkers are still suffering – some lost their lives, others are today living with live bullets in their bodies. Nobody talks about their plight and President Uhuru and Raila have largely forgotten about them.”

Owuor said it would be pretentious to build bridges when the youth have been neglected. “The youth had been promised Canaan. Instead what they got was a Handshake between two political bigwigs who cared for nothing as far as the youth were concerned. Because of this, Raila cannot hold a rally in Kisumu – the youth are still very embittered.”

The divided opinion of Kisumu residents suggested that the Handshake was a self-preservation elite pact. Raila’s core political constituents, still hurting and nursing post-presidential election injuries and injustices since 2007, and suffering biting hunger pangs in these economic hard times, have been forced, yet again, to defer their quest for justice and reparations.

The civil society leader said BBI was a reward for the boys. “I’ve been seeing them in seminars taking selfies, and we’ve yet to see a preliminary report of its findings. If BBI was working, we wouldn’t have heard the kind of political rhetoric and bitterness we witnessed at the Kirinyaga governors’ conference. Truth be told, BBI has been overtaken by events…stupid…succession politics is the order of the day.”

The divided opinion of Kisumu residents suggested that the Handshake was a self-preservation elite pact. Raila’s core political constituents, still hurting and nursing post-presidential election injuries and injustices since 2007, and suffering biting hunger pangs in these economic hard times, have been forced, yet again, to defer their quest for justice and reparations.

Hard feelings, brought about by past betrayals by a cross-section of the Gikuyu elite, the construction of a few road projects, the appointment of a few sons-of-the-soil into public offices, and some subsidy for the beleaguered sugarcane farmers to numb the Luo people’s raw wounds, as they cheat them again, are still very real.

The mixed reactions also revealed a wide gap between the politics that the Handshake enabled at the county level – where incompetent, corrupt, and nepotistic leadership is the name of the game, and where Raila’s hard core support base yearns for a clean and competent government that can deliver healthcare, food, and clean water – and national-level politics, where the very same Raila has been baying for the blood of some of the corrupt, inept and ethnic chauvinists in charge of various ministries.

Drunk with power by proxy

At the county level, the Handshake, it seems, is politics as usual. It starkly reminds Kenyans, especially residents of Kisumu, Homa Bay, Siaya and Migori counties, that their political fortunes or misfortunes since independence have risen or fallen hard with every elite pact, and the ever changing political coalitions, mostly beholden to expedient political interests.

“This time, it’s a call for a big sacrifice from Raila’s political ambitions, an exchange for the quest for justice for the electoral malpractices and victims of police violence, for some ‘development’,” and ultimately, Raila’s quest for the presidency or premiership,” posited Martin Augo.

If Raila’s core support base yearns for competent and accountable county governments is unmistakable, then the Handshake seemed to make such demands only at the national government level, points out Willis Ochieng, a tenderprenuer who has worked in several county governments in western Kenya. “The Handshake,” said Ochieng, “ilituliza joto la siasa, lakini wananchi bado hawana huduma. Ma MCAs, wamesahau hata watu wao kabisa. Wanapigana bunge kujaza mifuko yao tu.” (The Handshake cooled the political temperatures, but the people still lack services. These MCAs have completely ignored the people who elected them. They fight in their respective assemblies to fill their pockets).

In several social media platforms, Kenyans envy the counties that have made remarkable progress and built infrastructure that makes county residents proud, such as the stadium in Kakamega County, the hospital in Makueni County, and the level-six hospital in Kisii County. But hardly anyone envies a hyacinth-free Siaya or Homa Bay or a world class football stadium in Migori. Raila’s strongholds, it seems, have nothing to show for the six years of the devolved government experiment.

Drunk with power by proxy, the party, it seems, is wasting its energy, distracted by chasing “the rat that is escaping a burning house” rather than putting out the fire that is consuming the house. ODM, it seems, reserves its harshest punishment for minnows, inconsequential transgressions and comical infractions, rather than the life-and-death violations of the men-only governors of its core ODM political base…

One hears only an occasional gnashing of clerical teeth, a dissatisfied Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) Bishop James Ochiel of Southern Nyanza diocese, but hardly a gnashing of the second liberators’ teeth, the custodians of the spirit of the struggle against bad government, among them the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party’s honchos.

Drunk with power by proxy, the party, it seems, is wasting its energy, distracted by chasing “the rat that is escaping a burning house” rather than putting out the fire that is consuming the house. ODM, it seems, reserves its harshest punishment for minnows, inconsequential transgressions and comical infractions, rather than the life-and-death violations of the men-only governors of its core ODM political base – men who, except for Prof Nyong’o, are seen as corrupt, nepotistic, incapable and fantastically generous with cash hand-outs, often given to a few hangers-on as they ride out a lacklustre two-term tenure at the helm of the Homa Bay, Siaya, and Migori county governments.

The ODM mandarins and Raila evangelists would rather they shadow and listen to the double meaning of Aisha Jumwa’s supposed disloyalty and sexed-up taunts of kiuno kiuno (hip gyrations) or “Kanugo e teko,” in Kisumu-speak. Aisha Jumwa’s flaunting of her sex appeal, which seems to gain the ire of the mostly male ODM party honchos, might look comical, but it is a timely reminder than the ODM party leaders may have to work extra hard to keep women’s support. Many women who support the party are hurting and hard done by tough economic times.

No justice for victims of political violence

In Kisumu’s Obunga slum, we sat down with two women outside the aptly named New Obunga Pub, who out of fear of reprisal from ODM Kisumu party hacks requested anonymity. “Risasi oweyo goyo udi wa. tear gas orumo,” (The bullets have stopped hitting our houses and the tear gas is no more), said the lady with a spec of gray hair. “The only respite we have now is that people are no longer running helter-skelter…we, at least, can move freely,” intoned her younger friend. “But there is nothing much else: there is no business, no income, we can’t buy anything because we don’t have the money. You just hustle as hard and kama kawaida (as usual nothing has changed). There is no work for the youth.”

Many, especially women, are still hurting and carrying the scars of the political violence of the 2017 presidential elections. They are also deeply impacted by the tough economic times. “Women were raped. Some lost family members, and although some of the victims formed a support group and were given food at the Kenyatta sports ground, they didn’t get any other help,” said one of the women, a human rights defender, who was hunched over an old model laptop plastered with stickers.

Justice for the victims of political violence has remained a sticky sour question. Unlike their counterparts from Central Kenya, many of the internally displaced people (IDPs) or returnees who came back to Kisumu and neighbouring counties are still waiting for the token financial compensation for the loss of land or livelihood.

The majority of the victims of the recent political violence feel let down by their elected leaders. At best, the elected leaders have been opportunistic and at worst indifferent to the plight of the victims. Shena Ryan, who works with a youth group that runs a charity for the poor living with HIV on the outskirts of Kisumu city, said, “It’s not enough to pay for the funeral expenses and give hand-outs to the bereaved for cheap publicity. A politician’s still a politician, always looking out for cheap glorification.”

Ryan reckons that the Handshake had restored stability, no doubt, because “Kikuyus could now again trade freely in Kibuye. We went to the streets, to protest electoral injustices, and some of us were killed. No one has got justice. They are telling us the OCS Nyalenda will be charged. Until these policemen are charged, it will remain just a narrative.”

Said the social worker, “I wasn’t for the Handshake and now, with the knowledge of hindsight, it would have been better had we not poured into the streets. Until the two buffaloes who shook hands come back to the people, purposefully apologise to the victims of the police violence, that Handshake means nothing. Recently, when the duo visited [to attend Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s memorial in Bondo], we were told, ‘Do not heckle Jakom. Who’s Jakom?’” The Handshake has returned us into a one-part state; we are all now in the Jubilee Party.”

In place of the elected leaders, a consortium of civic organisations comprising the Kisumu City Residents Voice, the Kondele Justice Centre, the National Informal Sector Alliance and Kisumu Joint Bunge Initiative, among others, have stepped in to pursue justice for at least 67 people who incurred various bodily injuries, both in the run-up to and after the 2017 presidential elections.

The consortium has petitioned the office of the Chief Justice of Kenya, asking Justice David Maraga to establish a tribunal to look into how security officers singled out and policed Luo Nyanza region during the last general election, to pursue justice for the victims of police violence, and to recommend the prosecution of the police officers who may be found to have been culpable of violence.

Mixed fortunes

Kisumu residents feel that their elected leaders are also indifferent to their economic plight. “Tich tire” (I’m hard at work) says Governor Prof Anyang’, who valorises the Protestant work ethic. But his constituents, such as Willis Ojwang’, retort, “Tich tire; to kech kecho,” (You are hard at work, but hunger bites sting).

Kisumu is no longer stuck in a socialist-like rut of drab municipal and civil service housing, uniformly dull in a state of disrepair, and the old ubiquitous rickety and dusty Peugeot 404 plying the Kondele-Kondele route that were kept on the narrow and badly maintained roads by the combined genius of the city’s mechanics and take-no-prisoners drivers.

The regional marine transport into the port of Kisumu is as good as dead. And the railway tracks are buried deep in the soil. Yet, the urban poor now cruise through the city’s new road networks and underpasses, four or five passengers in a tuk tuk, (rickshaw-type three-wheeler taxis) or as one or two passengers on a boda boda. Its streets, especially in the CBD, all the way to Kisumu International Airport, are well lit at night.

But the city has not yet turned a corner. Its economy is not yet as dynamic as its demography, especially as it draws in other East Africans, such as the Burundians and more Ugandans, who are hawking consumer goods in search of surplus incomes. More than the Protestant work ethic, Kisumu’s economy is in dire need of structural change, the revival of agricultural sectors and ventures into agribusiness, if only to mitigate the widening gender inequality gap and meet the demands of regional integration.

“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.”

Although the revival of the KBL Kisumu plant held hope for some, the two women we talked to in Obunga complained that the plant employs people from Nairobi, Uganda, Nyakach, and Machakos, not the residents of Obunga as they had hoped. Worse still, for women who have been left out of the city’s better-paying male dominated boda boda and the car wash businesses, the fish processing companies, which used to employ many women directly and indirectly through trading in mgongo wazi (fish skeletons) is closed. “It was big business for all. But with the coming of the Chinese fish, the companies closed. These companies now use their big freezers and cold rooms to store and redistribute Chinese fish,” said one of the women.

“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.”

“Prostitution is rife here,” one of the women told us. “If you guys stayed a little longer, you’d see a traffic of women moving up towards Kondele, Gwara-Gwara or Ka-Lorry where sex goes for as little Sh20 per shot. What has the Handshake done for us? It has pushed us into sex slavery,” moaned the woman dejectedly as the sun was setting on Obunga slum.

Youth too have missed the BBI boat. If university students’ campus politics is a good indicator for the shifting political alliance, then Kathy Gitau, the articulate, urbane, and charming vice chairperson of the Maseno University students’ council knows all too well how significant local politics, including campus politics, are intricately tied to the centre.

Clutching a long list of names of students who deserve bursaries this semester, which are due for submission, she agreed that the Handshake, “had cooled down political temperatures …brought political stability, freedom of movement, and good working relationship across ethnic divides, and on campus, bridged the ethnic rift between students”, making it possible for her and team to invoke the spirit of the Handshake to canvass for votes. As a coalition of three women and four men, and as a coalition of a Luo (chairperson), a Kikuyu (vice chairperson), a Luhya (treasurer), a Kisii and Turkana, they had been elected.”

Stated Gitau: “Before the Handshake, it was hard for a Kikuyu or Kalenjin to get elected by the students. Ethnic discrimination against the Kikuyu and Kalenjin was rife among students. ‘Why should we give you a piece of cake here when you have the national cake?’ argued the students. Our competence, individuality, strong gender and ethnic balance swept us into office. All candidates in our coalition, except one, were elected. We won by a landslide,” said Gitau.

Still, Ms Gitau had some reservations. The Handshake, she said, “has bridged the divisions among the ordinary citizens who can now interact freely, but it has also widened the rift among the political class. It has killed the opposition. Raila now has a central role in government because he seems to have edged out Ruto. This could, as well, affect us, pitting us in an endless cycle of disputes and divisions.”

She, however, admitted that she still doesn’t understand what the Handshake is all about. “Is it supposed to end in a referendum? If so, how will we participate in a process whose outcome or end game is unknown or seems predetermined? What is in it for the youth? Be that as it may, the Handshake seems to have shifted the focus away from the Big Four Agenda issues of food, healthcare, housing and industrialisation.”

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant and Akoko Akech is a graduate student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, presently living in Kisumu.

Politics

‘I Will Crush You’: The November 18 Kampala Massacre

On 18 November, the insecurities of the past welled up in a bloody bout of peacetime carnage in Kampala – a massacre ignited by fear of a musician who has stolen the nation’s heart.

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‘I Will Crush You’: The November 18 Kampala Massacre
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“If I can’t have you
I’ll go out of my mind”
-Whitesnake

Just how serious the moment was comes to you afterwards. Caught in the centre of the riot, the adrenaline high, the gauntlet of fire, smoke, tear gas and gunfire raging around you, you are shielded from the knowledge that this could be the day they kill you.

Afterwards, when you have escaped the bullet and the gas, and have made it home, and the adrenaline has worn out, the pain begins. What if I was among those that died?

It is the evening of trauma, the time for unanswerable questions. You look at the images coming in and think, a week ago, I stood by this mall searching for twine. I was at the same spot the retired lecturer, 71-year old John Kittobe, was cut down. How about the 15-year-old Amos Segawa, bleeding to death, killed on Kafumbe Mukasa Road where there are things I always need to buy?

There is more. The videos keep coming in. Where the yellow, sporty hatchback with the president’s poster drove into a crowd (Charlottesville-style) you too had wedged your way out between a Mercedes Benz trailer and an Isuzu Bighorn. At each Christmas, you regularly drive past the town the church laity Richard Mutyaba was killed in. And the sunny-faced Onesmus Kansiime was shot in a place I went past just a month earlier.

Is there a formula to empirically plot these events? How did the angels of death that roamed this bit of earth in mid-November bearing AK-47s look at a figure and decide that that body, that young man, that woman will die today?

Then comes the impossible matrix: what can I do to not be killed? Should I not raise a defiant voice, not write this article? But then none of those killed were rabble-rousers.

Talk, you die; keep quiet, you die

So why was it them and not me? Why did the shooting happen this week instead of last week when I was right there?

Then, survivor’s guilt: I should have been there holding the hand of that boy whose legs were crushed to smithereens. What right do I have to remain alive when they are all gone?

Perhaps this comes closest to answering these wearied questions: a sheer coincidence of missed appointments and of a malfunctioning carburetor that kept you parked by the roadside, you realise, was all that stopped you standing at the spot where the bullet went through Mr Kittobe.

Those that were killed led quiet, unprotesting lives.  Talk, you die; keep quiet, you die. How about the rest of us noise makers, who write articles like this, the makers of music, the poets and activists who are frequently warned, “There is a plan for you”.  Every day, you walk past your designated killer and even say good morning to him. “Your time will come. Be careful.”

You realise there is a bullet out there with your name on it. They just haven’t fired it yet.

The bridge

The hand of fate had me and a writer friend drive a few kilometers north of the city centre. Hard rain in the morning had kept me an hour behind my intended time of arrival. There were a couple of things I needed – and still need – in the downtown area that bore the brunt of the violence. But the rain had ruined my day so I cut the city centre out of my planned schedule.

Meeting done, and as the two of us were approaching the overpass at Bwaise at precisely 3 p.m, it was reported that Mr. Kittobe had been shot dead.

Every day, you walk past your designated killer and even say good morning to him. “Your time will come. Be careful.”

The pillars of black smoke rising everywhere did not yet register. A group of young men were running across the road hurriedly. But they do that in Kalerwe, no? A couple of police officers in heavy riot gear were waving their arms in command. That too has been standard  in the last 20 years.

But past the gentle curving section that takes you from the Kalerwe-Mpererwe junction, the pile of burning tyres is ominous. Before we get there, there comes the smell of tear gas and a single shot. Burning tyres, tear gas and gunshots – the macabre trinity.

We remember the news of the arrest of Bobi Wine and understand it fully.

The overpass raises the ground underneath us but we will never make it past it. We slow down. A young man shouts in urgent Luganda. We press on. At the top of the bridge, we see his point. Down beyond the overpass, the hundreds of unmoving vehicles are jammed. To our left, clogged up on Sir Apollo Kagwa Road, even more vehicles. To our right there is the actual event, the crackle of gunshots interspersed with shouts of heightened emotions. The only clear route out of this is behind us and it is filling up fast. We need to act.

Gunshots, and that eerie clarity when you know they are shooting to kill.

Now that we are fully aware, we start to notice, in every movement, an affirmation that the Museveni regime had not given up.

Something is building up, like an approaching storm. We must get out. We make the U-turn.

We never made it across the bridge. Below, a maelstrom. The uncrossed bridge, the bridge of burning tyres and missing phones.

Cassava, potato and banana gardens

The old Bwaise road is blocked by a massive, burning barricade. We swerve right in time to avoid the gridlock. I wrack my brain to remember the muddy, potholed backyards of Makerere Kavule, where I grew up in the 1990s. Lord, let it not be too far ahead. Just ahead, the biggest burning barricade we will see all day, in Makerere Kavule. The Lord is kind. We find the easy-to-miss byway.

“Enkuubo enfu”. The road is bad, a young man warns us.

“I know this place,” I reassure the poet and press on.

U-turns

Lesson learned: keep away from big, smooth roads. Cling to byways and earth ruts. You clamour up the back of Makerere hill on number one and number two, there with the ugly cassava and lianna side, with the burrs and forget-me-nots, the side of its hill that Makerere does not put on its admission prospectus. We intended to slingshot across the city westwards. But the Kikoni-Kasubi districts, from the ridge overlooking Makerere West, was a disturbed beehive of burning barricades and military and zero vehicular traffic.

An afternoon of U-turns. Rapidly back up, head directly south and at the Sir Apollo Kagwa Road (in Kampala you can’t escape Sir Apollo Kagwa, a relentless, tyrannical memory of the seminal betrayer of Uganda) and Makerere Hill junction, a sharp turn west. Cars rapidly going uphill on third gear, as quickly as they can before the inescapable Nakulabye junction is shut. And just in time to catch youths tearing the pavements, a troop of riot gear- and gun-wielding soldiers steadily pacing in their direction. The clash is inevitable. But the distraction buys us a few seconds. We shield behind a blanket of raging tyre fire and smoke, and leap onto Namirembe district.

From Sir Apollo Kagwa Road to Namirembe Cathedral, we have been in the open air of modern roads too long. Time again to dive out of sight on back roads.

In the backwaters of the Nateete-Mackway suburb, the air seems the most riotous – the giant barricades, youths clutching shirts, running, soldiers and police alert and trigger- happy. A quick left, and at the early Martyrs Church, searching an option route out west. It is more cassava, banana and potato fields and villagers watching curiously this unscheduled invasion of town cars in their shambas. But there are barricades even this deep. The difference is that there are no soldiers or police, so it’s a civilised pleading with the motorists – don’t cheat us poor people; don’t take our land.

The realisation comes that when the big moment of history approaches, there is no out of sight to fall into.

It is at the top of the ridge, just before Busega, when we feel out of the danger zone, that I realise how much trouble we had escaped.

After nearly an hour hunting through the sidelines of banana, yam and cassava fields for a way out of the city, a black Toyota Harrier stood thrumming ahead of us, not moving.

“Get out,” he yells.

‘Mr Bobi Wine I arrest you because you do this so many times’

In the days that follow, when all the headlines have been scanned and radio analyses have been listened to, and the unwatchable videos have been watched and re-watched, we all know what we have always known: We Ugandans are being punished for falling in love with Bobi Wine rather than with the other one who considers himself the more attractive suitor. Has this not been the story for four decades now? That Mr. Yoweri Museveni, having failed to win at the ballot box, has lashed out in violence?

It is said that the most deadly thing that Milton Obote ever wielded was a microphone. And in 1980, it is said, his listeners never stood a chance when faced with his killer tongue.

Kizza Besigye is like that. He stands up and moves a hand. Not a word said but already there are tears streaming down faces. He speaks and something moves in the crowd, an almost metaphysical, transcendental transformation.

It is different at Mr. Museveni’s rallies. At your kindest, you might call him a policy wonk, a man who likes to string off measures, deliverables, reasons and figures. He does not speak to the heart. Without the military reining the crowds in, as happened on the day Daniel arap Moi stepped down in Nairobi, he will move his listeners to jeer and boo him. He does not have the words that will make people feel warm inside. He has a pathological fear of elections.  Thoroughly wooden, his best pick-up line is, “I will crush you.”

It is said that the most deadly thing that Milton Obote ever wielded was a microphone. And in 1980, it is said, his listeners never stood a chance when faced with his killer tongue.

At Besigye’s rallies, they jostle, push forward, slip and fall for the privilege of handing him some money, or a chicken. He makes them believe in something. But Museveni had him tear-gassed, beaten and blinded – to disfigure the face they found irresistible.

In Shakespeare’s play, Othello, the hatred-blinded Iago, unaccepting of the fact that someone he considers dark, ugly, without substance, and full of pompous emptiness can be attractive to someone else, says venomously:

He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly

But take Obote and Besigye and add them up. The combination is Bobi Wine, a man young enough to be Mr. Museveni’s grandson. Still the fear returns.  The reaction of Mr. Museveni remains the same as it was when he faced off against Obote and Besigye. The deeply fear that they will speak and win.

On 18 November 2020, the insecurities of the past welled up in a bloody bout of peacetime carnage that Kampala will not wish to remember. (Just in case we forget, at the end of 2016, scores were massacred in the West town of Kasese, the likely site of the coming pogrom should Uganda break down.)

Kiwaani

I have never taken the time to stream Bobi Wine’s music. After November 18 and 19, I wanted to find out just what it is that endears a country to him and so hurts the other man.

As good a track to begin with is Kiwaani. Upbeat and sad, delightful and morose, it was Bobi Wine’s breakout hit in 2009-2010. You start to see that Bobi Wine, unbeknownst to us who did not pay closer attention at the beginning, but who was already sealing the love deal. Whilst Museveni basked in his 2006 triumph and prepared for another “Rap” in 2009-10, Bobi Wine was already placing the winning hand.

It remains perhaps his quintessential song, an address that spoke to Ugandans in ways we had not been spoken to since Philly Bongole Lutaaya and Okot P’Bitek before him (an inheritor then of poet laureate burdens). Dulcet, rising, in pathos, long-suffering, there was a song telling us what we were feeling. Back then, lines in it were quoted repeatedly to explain why things were unbearable. Kampala, it declared, was the place of failure.

A deceptively laid-back track, Kiwaani opens in classic Kadongo Kamu (one-man guitar) melody, seemingly to hark back to a bygone age. This is followed by rapid, brief strings. Then comes the rescuing poetry.

A melody taken off a slum kid’s chant of sowaani (the plate at feeding time), repurposed to say Kampala wears sheds, Bobi Wine put it to good effect. And there he is, in his element, seductive, laying it on thick, simplifying and pre-digesting inaccessible lyrics, a distillation of critical discourse – postcoloniality, duality, deconstruction, neoliberal philanthropy. It is all there. There is just enough straight Luganda to make you get it. For the rest, you just have to speak ghetto to get it.

His coming of age mood was dense, chewy, accessible, personable.  He might have played nothing more beyond Kiwaani and stayed forever as the defining describer of Kampala. After you listened to that track, you could not take your eyes away from the dreadlocked lark.

A decade later, the melody is still haunting.

Mr. Money

Then there was the author of Mr. Money, at one time the undisputed anthem of Kampala. And you asked again, how did I not know how to put it into words what I see daily in this city? As if knowing what would become of him in later years, the young, twenty-something Bobi Wine had sung these lines:

Those who pursue me find me far ahead
Rich and poor, let this music touch you

Before he was a political prisoner, he was a prisoner of conscience, and he quotes his tormentors:

‘Mr Bobi Wine I arrest you because you do this so many times
I arrest you and take you to SPC and charge you with idle and disorderly”

Mr. Money is in many ways, the song that really tells it as it is. He is in his element. But it is still safe territory. He is belting out the Kadongo Kamu man’s craft, telling stories, not the mash and splash postmodernity of Kiwaani.

But the essential Bobi Wine is there, as he always had been, and would be in later years –  rousing, exhilarating, musical, leading from the front.

I say man made money, money made man mad

He could have stopped at Mr. Money and been great.

Carolyn

He could even have stopped at Carolyn, and still been great. One of those required evergreen melodies no songster must go out without, Carolyn is a happy song, a party staple, like What A Wonderful World, or Here Comes the Sun, or the tenderest, caressing ballard of Tabu Ley’s Mireille Mwana, He is not only happy, he is doing happiness. There is Bobi Wine, happy, letting it rip; he is enjoying it, letting the melody run, run, run. A love song. A recollection of high school sweetheart nostalgia. A celebration.

But is he not channeling the late Kafeero with his slim, scanty-bearded, straw hat-wearing mien? What is he doing with the adungu, harp and rattle troupe? 1997 was a wonderful year.

She used to call me Master Bio because I used to handle money-o.

This man made beautiful songs. They love him for it. Before he stood for them, he serenaded them.

Kyarenga

The earlier joie de vivre expressed in Carolyn is resurrected in perhaps the most ambitious of Bobi Wine’s songs, Kyarenga, the eponymous song of the album for which the notorious crackdown of the 2018 launch cemented what would be the position of government going forward. Kyarenga is set as a love song. The strapping youth who has the village belle’s heart is challenged by variegated powerful and moneyed suitors. But he has the belle’s heart. The belle has eyes only for him.

This man made beautiful songs. They love him for it. Before he stood for them, he serenaded them.

The song, and the video (by this point Ugandan music videographers had come into their own), is a thinly disguised allegory of the moment, of the songster who has a nation’s heartbeat but is attacked and harassed by the powerful who think their position and money entitles them to love. Why force the nation to love you when who they want is me?

But does that explain this unhinged violent fear of voters choosing someone who steals their hearts?

Paradiso

The heavier, Mtukuzi-sampling opening, but Kiswahili-lyrics Paradiso pays homage to a different Uganda, Uganda, the East African country. A track with a kick, perhaps the lowest depth of Bobi Wine pathos. It speaks to the generation disinherited by neoliberalism, scattered in the face of the earth to look for fortunes, and returning, in the words of T.S. Eliot, to find alien people clutching strange gods.

Situka

The politically overt Bobi Wine comes out clear in 2015/2016. He releases Situka and declares,

When leaders become misleaders
And mentors become tormentors
When freedom of expression becomes target of suppression
Opposition becomes our position

If he was speaking to Mr. Museveni, he was also speaking to Mr. Obote, Idi Amin and the grandest of all Ugandan tyrants, Sir. Apollo Kagwa. And this is a point lost in the heat of the moment. The fight that has raised Bobi Wine was a century in the making. Mr. Museveni need not feel it is directed at him. When he is gone, that war will still rage on. The things we need Bobi Wine for are not the things we require Mr. Museveni for.

He is the Ugandan musician who broke through his art into the public consciousness. But also, in this era, he is music breaking beyond the point Bob Marley left it. We can hardly think of a musician, anywhere, in recent times, who has caused such a stir in an uncertain, frightened world.

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Business as Usual: The Kasese Massacre and Power Politics in Uganda

The patterns of state violence in Uganda are sadly repetitive as the ruling party obstructs burgeoning criticism to President Yoweri Museveni’s decades-long grip on power.

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Business as Usual: The Kasese Massacre and Power Politics in Uganda
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Baluku Bismark was 14 years old when he sat for his school exams in early November 2016 with the goal of becoming a health worker in Kasese, western Uganda. A few weeks later, Baluku was among those killed by the Ugandan army during an attack on the region’s cultural institution, known as the Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu (OBR).

By the end of a two-day assault on 26 and 27 November 2016 the military had killed 155 people using live ammunition and intentional fires; images of raging infernos and piles of bodies circulated on social media. Community members had killed at least 14 policemen. It was eight months after that year’s presidential and primary elections.

Baluku is one of many Ugandan citizens whose fate was sealed by state agents in the name of “restoring order”. In each instance, those agents “take orders from above” and are shielded from any accountability. Dig deeper and it is about power and votes.

Uganda is scheduled to hold elections on 14 January 2021. Ten opposition candidates, including former musician and member of parliament, Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, are challenging President Museveni who has controlled nearly every aspect of government in Uganda since 1986.

As expected, the presidential campaign, which officially began on 9 November 2020, has been marred by partisan law enforcement. Already, but unsurprisingly, state violence is defining the campaigns. Like previous presidential rival Dr Kizza Besigye, prominent opposition candidates Kyagulanyi and Patrick Amuriat have faced harassment, beatings, and various criminal charges. On 18 November police arrested Kyagulanyi during a rally in Eastern Uganda; Amuriat was arrested in Gulu. The arrests sparked spontaneous demonstrations in several towns, with the youth demanding their release. News reports indicate that security forces shot at least 45 people and hundreds more were injured.

For people in Kasese, these events are occurring as they prepare to vote in the first election since the horrific bloodshed that took place exactly four years ago this week. Unpacking the power politics behind the Kasese massacres is critical to understanding Uganda’s elections and the President’s stranglehold on power. It also tells a dismal story of total impunity no matter the scale of the killing.

Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu and cultural institutions in Uganda

The Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu is the cultural institution, or kingdom, of people that traditionally live in the western Rwenzori Mountains along Uganda’s border with Congo. The institution itself is headquartered in Kasese district.

Political recognition of cultural institutions in Uganda is part of the complex path that led to President Museveni’s ascension to power in 1986. For example, as a way of soliciting the support of the predominantly Baganda people of the central region, Museveni agreed to restore the region’s Buganda Kingdom which had been abolished in 1966 under the first post-colonial government.

But President Museveni, a master of political compromise, understood the delicate balance required. Buganda’s cultural leader was permitted to formally exist but he wasn’t allowed any actual political power. Over the years, as a form of bargaining for allegiance, Museveni has slowly accepted the restoration of other cultural institutions, such as the Bunyoro-Kitara in the west, and the Busoga and Tooro Kingdoms in the east and southwest, respectively. In a country as ethnically and linguistically diverse as post-colonial Uganda, these cultural institutions and their leaders can command significant loyalty and community support.

Such devotion was on full display in September 2009 when Museveni, seeking to curtail the influence of the Buganda Kingdom, sought to limit the freedom of movement of the kingdom’s leadership. Loyalists quickly took to the streets in protest. By the end of two days, security forces had killed at least 45 people to quell the uprising and the Luganda-speaking radios had been taken off the air.

Shortly thereafter, and despite criticism from those who deemed it unconstitutional, Uganda passed a law barring cultural leaders from participating in partisan politics or providing a platform for any politician. However, most cultural institutions have often remained influential, if constrained, despite efforts to rein in their influence using this law or attempts to co-opt them into the ruling party.

In 2006, Uganda held the first multiparty elections since Museveni first came to power through a military takeover. Already in power for 20 years, Museveni suffered what some felt was a humiliating political defeat in Kasese, with the opposition presidential candidate Dr Besigye garnering 56 per cent of the total votes to Museveni’s 45 per cent.

Some pundits interpreted the result as a rebuke to Museveni for ignoring the grievances of the Rwenzururu cultural institution in its plea for official recognition. In an attempt at political expediency, Museveni finally acquiesced in October 2009 – a few weeks after the violent suppression of the Buganda kingdom supporters. The Omusinga, or King in the Bakonzo language, was coronated and the Rwenzururu cultural institution was restored just in time for the campaign for the February 2011 elections. Museveni won the area vote and secured two seats for his party in parliament. But the recognition wasn’t without its critics, and clashes between pro- and anti-Obusinga forces escalated. Intercommunal fighting led to the displacement of both the ethnic Bakonzo and the Bamba, another ethnic group in the region. The government stepped in but was increasingly perceived to be siding with those opposed to the King.

Five years later, the opposition Forum for Democratic Change fared well in the Rwenzori region. All parliamentary and local posts in Kasese went to the opposition. National Resistance Movement (NRM) strongmen, such as Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga, lost their parliamentary posts.

The relationship between the President and the King had been rocky for a few years prior to the election but the election results clearly indicated that the ruling party was losing traction in the region. Ruling party mobilisers started working harder to co-opt the king’s support base, sowing the seeds of instability.

Kasese in November 2016

Four years later, the full story of the horrific killings that took place in Kasese in November 2016 remains shrouded in secrecy. The government has never published the names of those killed or allowed independent investigations into why its army massacred almost 150 of its own citizens over two days. Spokespeople have only indicated that those who died were “terrorists” who sought to “take over Uganda”. Despite arresting and imprisoning over 180 people, the government has never presented any evidence in court and never proceeded to trial. The people arrested in November 2016 languish in prison to this day

Sporadic conflicts between communities, at times involving security forces, flared up after the 2016 elections. In one incident, the Police Flying Squad shot and killed a suspected Omusinga loyalist in a market as he bought food. A government soldier was later killed by machete, allegedly for spying on the King near the palace compound.

Rumours began to spread in Kasese at this time that the government would be handing over a demobilisation fee to the Omusinga’s “royal guards” – volunteers who are loyal to the Kingdom and work on its behalf. In a very low-income part of the country, such enticements inflated the ranks of the royal guards as people waited for handouts to support their families.

Eventually, word spread that the payout was imminent. But as people gathered in the palace compound on November 25, the military arrived and Kasese was brought to a standstill. Under the command of General Peter Elwelu, Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) soldiers, encircled the palace and told the people inside that they could not leave. Tensions escalated and, eventually, soldiers shot and killed eight royal guards at the kingdom’s office in town. The rumour that the kingdom was under attack spread into the outlying sub-counties. Community members attacked some police posts and 14 police officers and 32 civilians were killed in the conflicts. The next day, the UPDF made its biggest move, allegedly ordering royal guards to disband or face attack.

At 1 p.m. the UDPF launched an assault on the palace, shooting live ammunition and setting thatched roofing alight. The king was removed by force and transferred to Kampala. Photos of piles of bodies, some with their arms tied behind their backs, circulated on social media. Some of the dead were buried in a mass grave near a military barrack. Some people were never found. At least 15 children last seen inside the palace are missing to this day; 180 people were charged with murder, terrorism and treason. Those who managed to escape went into hiding and to this day, the palace remains closed.

Two months after the attack General Elwelu told a local newspaper that the “place had lost its legitimacy. It was no longer a palace. It became a legitimate military target because it had become a command post for all that was happening in Rwenzori.”

There is no doubt that the events of November 2016 ended any pretense that the right to freedom of expression existed in the region. Many believe that Museveni would most likely have tolerated the Rwenzururu king had he not shown open support for the opposition. No one could seriously believe the government’s line that the king posed any meaningful security threat to the country or that he would be able to orchestrate any secession. But, clearly, cultural leaders needed to be shown that they could not behave like the Rwenzururu king. What if other kingdoms followed suit?

Since 2016, the Omusinga’s movements have been largely restricted to his house in Kampala. He was barred from travelling to the Rwenzoris, even after seeking the court’s permission to attend the June 2019 burial of his mother. Security officials say that since the attack on the palace in 2016, the region is now peaceful. The region nurses its wounds and struggles to care for an estimated 300 widows and 600 orphans left behind by the massacre.

Despite some condemnatory statements from foreign embassies and civil society, the government has not been pressured to show any real evidence of why that scale of bloodshed was lawful or proportionate. In a classic case of co-option, President Museveni appointed the king’s brother as a minister in his government.

What happened in November 2016 in Kasese can only be viewed as a stark reminder to all cultural leaders – and frankly to any critic of the regime – that they should stay away from candid engagement in politics or consider supporting Uganda’s political opposition.

Those arrested were left to rot in jail, far from their families. But as the 2021 elections approach, perhaps they are suddenly again useful to the electoral landscape?

Uganda’s upcoming elections 

As Bobi Wine ignites imaginations about new approaches to governance in Uganda, the government’s paranoia is at an all-time high and one can only imagine that there is significant work being done to ensure that the Rwenzori votes go to the ruling party. Word is already trickling out that the government is going to release those who have spent four years in prison without trial. But they will never be exonerated. It is likely that they are under significant pressure to admit some wrongdoing, to grovel and seek forgiveness from Museveni despite no clear evidence of their crimes having been presented. When Museveni releases the detainees just in time for the anniversary (and the voting,) he will demand blind loyalty. Even though his soldiers killed their families.

The patterns of state violence in Uganda are sadly repetitive; the ruling party obstructs burgeoning criticism to Museveni’s long stay in power. Organised dissent – Uganda’s cultural institutions, opposition members, civic groups, or just an outspoken citizen – is met with co-option, pressure and intimidation. A bank account is frozen, a cultural leader is coronated, a brown envelop of cash arrives. But at times, these efforts fail to silence the critics. Defiant voices rise up.

In that flashpoint, the state unleashes overwhelming violence against its own citizens and people like Baluku and many others die under the bullets of the state security agents. No previous military or police training supported by Uganda’s Western “partners in democracy” like the United States or United Kingdom prevents the blatant drive for political expediency.

In each incident – the Kayunga demonstration in 2009, the Walk to Work protests of 2011, the Kasese killings of 2016, the Free Bobi Wine demonstrations in November 2020, and countless other similar events – citizens, often innocent bystanders, or youth demonstrating against state actions are killed or arrested. Each time, the pro-government pundits quickly go on the attack, demonising those killed as terrorists or hooligans and then calling for peace.

Behind the scenes, those in jail will continue to suffer without being brought to trial, and with no credible evidence of their wrongdoing being produced. But no member of the security forces will face any questions to justify the bloodshed. International donors to Uganda’s ample security sector will momentarily issue condemnations and then return to the humdrum of diplomatic life in Kampala’s leafy suburbs. The graves of the dead, of people like Baluku from Kasese, are quickly forgotten.

If the government’s explanation of the reasons behind these horrific episodes is ever to be believed, it will need to hold both sides to account and be willing to allow for criticism, dissent and, most importantly, electoral loss. Military commanders, including generals like Elwelu, who allowed the killings of unarmed civilians, who allowed the bullets to fly, will need to be brought to open court, to answer tough questions from lawyers who don’t fear reprisals. As long as men like General Elwelu are promoted for killing civilians, as he was, the unabashed reliance on state violence as a political weapon in Uganda will continue. And horrific images of bloodied bodies – like those of November 2020 and November 2016 – will increase.

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Pan-Ethiopianists vs Ethno-Nationalists: The Narrative Elite War in Ethiopia

It is not an accident that much of the narrative war is being fought on social media. Social media is fertile ground for having one sided debate. For the elites, it is a place where captured attention can be exchanged for dollars and because of it, careful analysis, and nuance—arguably the most important characteristics of intellectuals—are disincentivised.

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Pan-Ethiopianists vs Ethno-Nationalists: The Narrative Elite War in Ethiopia
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The current political conflict, now a civil war, in Ethiopia partly has its roots in disagreement among elites on how to narrativise Ethiopian history.

There is an enduring disunity among Ethiopian elites regarding the country’s history and future. Informed by its long, and contentious multi-ethnic history, and fueled by recent shifts in the political landscape in the country, a war of narratives has been reignited. The narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists.” The spillover effect of this increasingly toxic debate has had a negative impact on the lives of everyday Ethiopians and continues to destabilise the country. Indeed, narratives surrounding ethnic identities and ethnic politics in Ethiopia is the one thing that demands the most attention. As it stands today, the way and environment in which the debate is occurring, and the actors involved in it indicates we may be approaching a threshold that cannot be uncrossed.

How the Ethiopian state evolved

Nation-building is a contested process of narrative construction. In his book, Imagined Communities, political scientist Benedict Anderson reminds us that nations are “imagined political communities.” Common to all political communities is a set of beliefs in unifying narratives about community special characteristics. These narratives provide explanations to the participating individuals and their leaders about what makes their community unique, especially when compared to others. Nation-building in the Ethiopian context follows a similar pattern.

Faced with the burden of justifying maintenance of the Ethiopian state and their place at the top, Ethiopian rulers of the past relied on religious texts and edicts of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Written in the 14th century, the Kibre Negest, or “Glory of the Kings,” provided detailed accounts of the lineage of the Solomonic dynasty—the former ruling dynasty of the Ethiopian Empire—according to which Ethiopia’s rulers were descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It told the story of Ethiopia and Ethiopians as God’s people, a chosen people.

The narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists.” The spillover effect of this increasingly toxic debate has had a negative impact on the lives of everyday Ethiopians and continues to destabilise the country

This narrative of Ethiopia as a chosen place endures to this day. It was in display when many Ethiopians woke up on October 24, 2020 and learned that US President Donald Trump had suggested “[Egypt] will end up blowing up the [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)] dam.” Many Ethiopian citizens and politicians responded with the assertion that Ethiopia will prevail, not least of which because it has God on its side. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office released a statement that echoed the same sentiment.

Similarly, the 12th century text Fitiha Negest, or “Laws of the Kings,” served as the country’s oldest traditional legal code. The Fitiha Negest insisted that kings must receive obedience and reverence. It justified the Kings’ power using scripture, specifically the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 17:15:

Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.

Ethiopia’s rulers used these texts to justify the state’s existence and their own power. But more importantly, as much as Americans take the Declaration of Independence as their founding moment, the Kebre Negest provided a similar “origins” story, albeit a contested one, while Fitiha Negest served as a constitution of sorts by laying out a minimal set of rules that bound the Kings and their subjects. As such, the Kebre Negest and the Fitiha Negest could arguably be taken as the most important founding texts of the Ethiopian state.

The 1700s witnessed the emergence of a new political structure where disparate noblemen usurped power away from emperors of the Solomonic dynasty and began ruling over their own regions, a period known among Ethiopian historians as Zemene Mesafint, or Age of the Princes, named after the Book of Judges. In 1855, Emperor Tewodros II, born Kassa Hailu, rose to the throne after defeating regional noblemen. He recognised the need for a newer narrative that was closely aligned to his vision of Ethiopia as a modern, forward thinking nation. In line with that vision, his first step was to separate church and state, shift its narrative and establish the state on a more secular foundation. To do so, he needed better educated Ethiopians, and thus began an elite-led nation building process. His efforts however did not bear fruit due to fierce internal opposition driven largely by disgruntled clergy, who, fearful of losing their own privilege and power, were unappreciative of his radical ideas.

Nation-building is a contested process and the path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia.

Subsequent rulers of Ethiopia mended the “glitch” and followed the path that almost was dismantled by Emperor Tewodros II, and, as a result, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remained inseparable from the Ethiopian state, and, with that, the state narrative. That, however, changed with Emperor Menelik II assuming the throne in 1889. Although historical Ethiopia dates back to millennia, Emperor Menelik is widely considered as an architect of the modern Ethiopian state. His epic defeat of Italian colonial power at the Battle of Adwa added another, if not stronger, element to the myth of God’s-chosen-people identity to Ethiopians and the Ethiopian state. As the Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde recounts in his book, Pioneers of Change, Menelik, eager to modernise Ethiopia, sent Ethiopians to Europe and the US for higher education. Unlike the church-educated elites that preceded them, these early Western-educated Ethiopians broke with tradition and became critics of the state. It may be argued as such that Emperor Menelik could be credited with spearheading the creation of a new intellectual-elite class and with bringing the same to the center of state politics. With that he laid the groundwork for the creation of a new elite class that would later challenge the very essence of Ethiopia as a nation state.

Walleligne and the birth of ethno-nationalism

When Emperor Haile Selassie rose to the throne in 1930, he was acutely aware of the shortage of educated Ethiopians to build Ethiopia’s nascent civil service and bureaucracy. In order to fill in this gap, like his predecessor, he sent many Ethiopians to Europe and the US for higher education that in the words of historian Jon Abbink produced “a generation of daring, innovative intellectual leaders and thinkers.” However, sadly many of these intellectuals were annihilated by the Italian colonial power in the late 1930s. This loss of its brightest left post-war Ethiopia with deep psychological scars and decades of stagnation, devoid of social and political change. With the founding of the University College of Addis Ababa in 1950, the future Haile Selassie University (now, Addis Ababa University), Emperor Haile Selassie’s dream of producing educated Ethiopians en masse finally came true.

The 1960’s was when the role of Ethiopian intellectuals in the country’s politics probably experienced its most consequential phase. Starting in the 1960’s, with the backdrop of broader social unrest, university students started to oppose Haile Selassie’s single-man authoritarian rule and the oppressive socio-economic and cultural structures within which the students said the imperial government and its predecessors functioned. They demanded rights and freedom. It was until a more radical wing of the movement, concurrent with the more mundane demand for reform, started to question the equating of the Ethiopian state with the nation. Compared to the reformist intellectuals of the previous generation, Ethiopia’s newly minted intellectuals displayed impatience and lacked foresight in their calls for radical social and political reformJon Abbink might not be far from the truth when he observed these intellectuals’ “wholesale adoption of unmediated Western ideologies and abandonment of Ethiopian values” had had “quite disastrous consequences.”

On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia,” an influential short essay written by Walleligne Mekonnen—who at the time was a second-year political science student at the university, and who was later was shot and killed along with fellow activists while attempting to hijack an Ethiopian Airlines flight—became a founding text of the radical wing of the student movement. In his essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather “made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity.” However, this reality, according to him, was suppressed by the ruling class. Instead, a “fake Ethiopian nationalism” that is based on the linguistic and cultural superiority of the Amhara and, to a certain extent, the Amhara-Tigre, was imposed on the other peoples of Ethiopia, resulting in asymmetrical relations among the “nations” of Ethiopia. Therefore, according to Walleligne, the Ethiopian state came to be through the linguistic and cultural assimilation of the peoples of the wider South by the North—the Amhara and their junior-partner-in-assimilation, the Tigre. And, that this project of constructing Ethiopia was aided by the trinity of (the Amharic) language, (Amhara-Tigre) culture and religion (the Ethiopian Orthodox Church). He was, of course, echoing arguments that Joseph Stalin, Rosa Luxemburg and others made about nations, nationalism, and self-determination. (Stalin, for example, lays out his thesis in Marxism and the National Question, as does Luxemburg in The Right of Nations to Self-Determination.)

Walleligne thus called for the dismantling and replacement of this “fake [Ethiopian] nationalism” with a “genuine Nationalist Socialist State” that he argued could only be achieved “through violence [and,] through revolutionary armed struggle.” To be sure, Walleligne did not see “succession” as an end in and of itself; nonetheless, he propagated it as a means to building the future egalitarian Ethiopian state, with the caveat that such succession should be rooted in and guided by “progressivism” and “Socialist internationalism.” He closed his essay with what may be considered prophetic:

A regime [Haile Selassie’s government] like ours harassed from corners is bound to collapse in a relatively short period of time. But when the degree of consciousness of the various nationalities is at different levels, it is not only the right, but the duty, of the most conscious nationality to first liberate itself and then assist in the struggle for total liberation.

Haile Selassie’s government did collapse in 1974.

The constitutionalizing of ethno-nationalism

The movement that Walleligne imagined, spearheaded by the intelligentsia as it were, was hijacked by the Dergue—a collective of disgruntled low-ranking military officers in the imperial army—that not only succeeded in overthrowing Haile Selassie’s government, but also in ruling Ethiopia with an iron-fist for the next 17 years. But the political and armed struggle for “liberation” continued. It was in this atmosphere of radicalisation of the intellectual-elite class that discourses like “liberation” and the “oppressor-oppressed” took hold in the Ethiopian body politic and a plethora of liberation fronts mushroomed or revived: the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF, 1962)—that succeeded in seceding Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1991—the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF, 1966), and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF, 1975) to name but the most important ones. The Dergue’s 17 years in power was marred by the bloodiest times in Ethiopian modern history: the Red Terror, a border war with Somalia (1977-1978) and, more importantly, the protracted civil wars with TPLF, EPLF and OLF.

After 17 years of armed struggle, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) defeated the Dergue and controlled Ethiopian state power in 1991. The EPRDF was a coalition composed of the TPLF, The Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Southern Ethiopia Peoples Democratic Front (SEPDF). It should, however, be noted that it was only with victory in sight against the Dergue and a desire to expand its sphere of influence beyond Tigray, that the TPLF formed the EPRDF in 1988. Otherwise, the actual power holder within the coalition remained TPLF. Consequently, the EPRDF introduced the 1995 constitution. Adopted in the immediate context of the post-Cold War, in a way that reflects the politics of constitutionalism and especially the shrewdness and pragmatism of the man behind it, Meles Zenawi, the constitution was a compromise between TPLF’s deep-rooted Marxist-Leninist ideological moorings and the post-Cold War euphoric triumphalism of liberal constitutionalism and human rights. So much so that the constitution declares the inviolability and alienability of human rights and freedoms emanating from the nature of mankind. However, as his building a de facto one-party state would later reveal, this was a move that seems to have been motivated more by placating the West than a genuine desire on the part of Zenawi’s EPRDF to champion the causes of human rights and democratic values.

In his essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather “made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity.

The constitution divided Ethiopia into nine ethnic states that—with the exception of what is called the Southern Nations and Nationalities Regional State—are based on the ethnic identities of residents of those states. Most importantly, the constitution grants the “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” within those states the unconditional “right to self-determination, including secession.” In other words, rather than with a people, sovereignty resides in a plurality of peoples of Ethiopia. It is these peoples that came together to form Ethiopia and they are the custodians of Ethiopia, from which they have the absolute right to secede if they so wish. That way, the constitution replaced the age-old notion of Ethiopia as a nation with an Ethiopia as a “nation of nations.” Walleligne predicted this almost a quarter of a century earlier: “What are the Ethiopian people composed of? I stress the word peoples because sociologically speaking at this stage Ethiopia is not really a nation.”

From then on ethnicity became a determinant factor and dominant political currency in Ethiopian politics, bringing with it, in the words of the late sociologist Donald Levine (who taught at the University of Chicago and became a key figure in Ethiopian Studies), an “epidemic of ethnic and regional hostilities.” In addition to changing the way the country organised itself politically, EPRDF also sought to reframe the very foundation of what it means to be an Ethiopian and how Ethiopia itself came to be. Not unexpectedly, EPRDF targeted schools and educational institutions in particular as spaces where new narratives of Ethiopian history could be inculcated, so much so that Ethiopian universities became flashpoints of ethnic conflicts among students. Walleligne’s abstract and—as he himself admitted in his writing—incomplete idea found a home in the curriculum.

With this entrenchment of a “new” history of Ethiopia and a generation educated in the new curriculum and the alienation of “pan-Ethiopianism” from the Ethiopian body politic, it seemed that the “old Ethiopia” had died and been buried. But, as the 2005 Ethiopian election showed, a pan-Ethiopian party called the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) almost clinched power in major cities and rural areas if it had not been suppressed and finally expelled from Ethiopian political landscape. In fact, it was that election that gave the close to two decades-long ethnic politics championed by Meles Zenawi, a real challenge and, more importantly, sowed the earliest seeds of the revival of pan-Ethiopian politics.

Abiy Ahmed and the re-emergence of pan-Ethiopianism?

Zenawi—the ex-guerrilla fighter who, as a prime minister, was reported to have made authoritarianism respectable—died in a Belgian hospital in 2012. Although political pundits thought that in his absence Ethiopia would plunge into crisis immediately, his successors managed to stave off social unrest until protest rallies started to emerge in the Oromia region following the unveiling of the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan (a plan to expand the federal capital, mostly into Oromia) in April 2014. Months of sustained protests resulted in hundreds of deaths and even more people being imprisoned.

However, the draconian measures did little to slow the protests. The EPRDF government eventually backed off from its aggressive actions against protestors and shelved its ambitious master plan, but it was too late. The protest had picked up steam and expanded to several other regions, including the Amhara region. Protestors demanded rights, representation, and economic justice. Tellingly, these protests erupted less than a year after EPRDF claimed to have won 100% of the 2015 election and only months after US President Obama praised the government as being “democratically elected.”

The TPLF-led EPRDF government could not sustain its political power. In the backdrop of a fierce intra-party scuffle, in April 2018, Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo and member of the OPDO, ascended to power. With his promise of leading Ethiopia through transition to democracy, Abiy immediately began introducing a plethora of reforms, including releasing political prisoners, inviting home all opposition parties, and appointing some prominent public figures to key positions within his government. These and many other earlier reforms won him almost universal support from Ethiopians and the international community. In 2019 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace-deal with neighboring Eritrea, ending a two-decades long stalemate, following the 1998 border war between the two countries that claimed more than a hundred thousand lives.

Despite the indisputably positive changes he introduced and results achieved, Abiy’s Ethiopia also saw its most turbulent years in recent Ethiopian history, including internal displacements, violence that claimed the lives of hundreds—high-profile assassinations, including an attempted assassination on the premier himself, targeted ethnic killings, and ongoing violence perpetrated by a splinter military wing of the OLF in western Oromia region. Abiy’s decision to indefinitely postpone the August general election due to COVID-19 has further destabilized the country and put in tatters his promise of transitioning Ethiopia to democracy.

There also is the ongoing tension with the TPLF that governs the Tigray region—that recently held its own regional election in defiance of the central government’s ban on all elections due to the pandemic. As a result, the Ethiopian parliament voted to cut ties with Tigray region leaders, which has the potential to erupt into a full-blown war with the federal government. Further complicating Abiy’s agenda of stabilizing the East African nation is the tension with Egypt in relation to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD) and broader geopolitical issues.

It was amid this ongoing turmoil Abiy established the Prosperity Party at the end of 2019, which brought together three of the four ethnic-based parties that constituted the EPRDF coalition and other smaller parties, considered within party circles as “allies” to the EPRDF. Based on his vision of national unity among Ethiopians that he calls medemer, which literally means “coming together,” this re-branding of EPRDF was meant to stave off the ethnically divisive politics and address ethnically motivated conflicts that engulfed the country during EPRDF’s 27 years in power. This seemingly mundane action, however, did not sit well with everyone and it brought to the surface an issue dormant for the last 25 years in the Ethiopian formal political scene, namely: how to historicize Ethiopia. There is now an all-out war of narratives among Ethiopian elites on the history of Ethiopia.

This narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianism” and “Ethno-nationalism.” The ethno-nationalist camp takes Walleligne’s thesis as accurate representation of Ethiopia as a nation of nations. As we have noted, in mainstream Ethiopian history, Emperor Menelik is considered the architect of the modern Ethiopian state. He is especially credited with expanding the Ethiopian empire to the south from his northern stronghold of Shoa. To the outside world and to Ethiopians alike, his epic victory over the Italian colonial force in the Battle of Adwa is widely celebrated as a key moment in Black anticolonial consciousness. In stark contrast to this picture, in the ethno-nationalist discourse, Emperor Menelik figures as the archenemy. To the ethno-nationalists Menelik’s supposedly mundane “state-building” endeavors were marked by violence, forced assimilation and suppression of cultures of peoples of the South, especially the Oromo. Echoing Walleligne’s thesis, they insist that rather than a nation built on the consent of the “nations, nationalities and peoples” of Ethiopia, Ethiopia is imposed on the wider South through conquest, violence and assimilation by Ethiopian rulers of Amhara, and to a certain extent, Tigre extraction. In their view, rather than an inclusive multicultural state, Ethiopia is made in the image of the Amhara and the Tigre.

This narrative of Ethiopia as a chosen place endures to this day. It was in display when many Ethiopians woke up on October 24, 2020 and learned that US President Donald Trump had suggested “[Egypt] will end up blowing up the [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)] dam.”

Quite to the contrary, those in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp embrace the historical Ethiopia and adhere to the idea of Ethiopia as a nation-state. While not ruling out the presence of violence, they reject the “empire thesis” of the ethno-nationalists and hold that Emperor Menelik was just engaging in state-building when he conquered and brought the wider South under his Imperial rulership. In the Pan-Ethiopianist narrative of Ethiopia, the supposed assimilationist and imperialist expansion of Emperor Menelik and his predecessors to the South is a normal historical process inherent to state building. There are also some within the Pan-Ethiopianist camp that insist that Emperor Menelik did not actually conquer and control “new” territories, but only “re-claimed” territories that hitherto were parts of the historical Ethiopia. There are still those in this camp that argue that it is in the nature of an empire to conquer peoples and rule over lands, and hence there is nothing anomalous about Emperor Menelik’s deeds.

Not surprisingly, many in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp saw, at least in the beginning, Abiy’s formation of the Prosperity Party as a move in the right direction with a potential to dismantle the current ethnic-federalism—that adherents of this camp hold is the root cause of the cycles of ethnic conflicts and other problems that the country faces—and eventually realise a unified Ethiopia, albeit federalist. Quite to the contrary, the move did not sit well with the ethno-nationalist camp, the TPLF in particular openly opposing this merger as “illegal” on the grounds that all constituent parties of the EPRDF should have consented to the dissolution of EPRDF and the merger. The Oromo activists see in this merger and Abiy’s other reform agenda a return to the old Ethiopia, in which they argue Oromos were culturally and linguistically alienated by the Amhara-Tigre elites that in the past had a monopoly on state power.

Social media and narratives of hate

The elites’ reach and impact has expanded as the means of information sharing and consumption has expanded. It is no more the traditional intellectual-elite class that engages in the production and dissemination of information that advances knowledge. Unlike the closely-knit intellectual class of earlier times, the debate now has a diverse body of actors: activists, political party operatives, and, as oxymoronic as it sounds, intellectual activists. The elites with the loudest voices use low-trust and high-reach communication mediums like Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to peddle their own facts and pursue their own agenda. Social media as it exists today rewards absolute claims, purity, good and evil binaries, and unequivocal declarations of truth that leave little room for compassion, reasoning, careful interpretation, and nuance. Fueled by algorithms that favor combustible content, social media companies orchestrate human interaction that lead individuals to maintain extreme positions and be adversarial towards one another.

The emerging Ethiopian elites in both camps have harnessed social media in ways that have yielded extraordinary influence and power over political discourse that directly and indirectly affects the lives of everyday Ethiopians. They recognize their charisma is more significant to their audience than the contents of their speech or the quality of their argument. Name calling and ad hominem attacks are their currency and they invoke current and historical grievances, and narratives of superiority, to stoke fear and anger. Unfortunately, the narratives these elites broadcast are not without consequences. There is a correlation between recent violence in Ethiopia and the supposed adherents of these narratives.

Nothing makes the dangers of the deep division between the two camps as the murder of the renowned Oromo singer, Hachalu Hundesa in June 2020. This incident has clearly shown their tendency to see and interpret any and every incident or issue in ways that support their respective narratives. Unfortunately, as is quite common in the post-truth social media age we live in, it is as though elites in each camp use different truth-filters, no matter what facts on the ground dictate. So much so that, immediately after the news of Hachalu’s death surfaced, elites in each camp took to social media and, with no evidence at their disposal, started to speculate who might have shot and killed the singer and began pointing fingers at each other. In the ethno-nationalist camp, a conspiracy started to circulate that claimed the killing was orchestrated and carried out by “neftegna” and statements like “They killed our hero” reverberated around social media, followed by wide-spread Oromo protests in Ethiopia, Europe, and North America. On the other hand, in what appears to be due to Hachalu’s pro-Oromo nationalistic political views, in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp there was either a deafening silence, or some suggesting that the killing was a result of intra power-struggle among the Oromo elite politicians who just “sacrificed” Hachalu for their own politically calculated ends. Amidst the confusion and unsubstantiated claims floating around—with even some media outlets broadcasting hate-filled messages—violence  erupted in the Oromia region claiming the lives of more than 200 individuals, the displacement of thousands, and property damage. The killings were reported to be gruesome and targeted.

If anyone in either camp is insensitive enough to bring havoc to Ethiopia, or even worse, to sacrifice precious human lives in pursuit of political ends or to prove a particular narrative of Ethiopia, then the debate is not so much about liberation and freedom as it is about ideology or some other ends. As Edward Said chastises us:

the standards of truth about human misery and oppression [are] to be held despite the individual intellectual’s party affiliation, national background, and primeval loyalties. Nothing disfigures the intellectual’s public performances as much as trimming, careful silence, patriotic bluster, and retrospective and self-dramatizing apostasy.

We shouldn’t also lose sight of the fact that, while not denying that there are genuinely invested individuals and groups of actors in each camp, there are still many in this “war” owing to other factors that have little or nothing to do with a genuine concern for Ethiopia and everyday Ethiopians. The harsh truth is that this is not just a debate about history, identity, or self-governance, but more so about elites’ drive for resource monopolization, the prestige that comes with power, and other factors external to the debate.

Abiy’s government, like the EPRDF before it, is attempting to limit internet access, especially to social media, to quell recent unrest. The government’s desperate act to avoid future incidents like these are understandable. Expanded internet access to all, in theory, at least, is a positive development in the right hands. And it would be misguided to argue that the broadening of access to free speech that has been made possible through social media is wrong or detrimental. The detriment, actually, is with the unchecked nature of social media. As well, the absence of meaningful fact checking and understanding of local knowledge among social media companies make it possible for misinformation to spread easily.

Whither Ethiopia? The way forward

As we noted initially, nation-building is a contested process and the path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia. This has become a singularly arduous task especially now that a generation of Ethiopians who have grown up under the EPRDF are increasingly alienated from actual inter-ethnic-lived experiences of Ethiopians of present and past generations. It is also naive to expect the debate to remain even-tempered. Emotions can run high as communities attempt to reconcile their ethnic identity and group status as they negotiate the meaning of their shared history with others. However, prerequisites to making meaningful progress are highly credible communication mediums, shared facts, and shared goals. At the moment, the opposite appears to be true.

There is a glaring absence of willingness on both sides to engage in reasoned debates, leaving no room to explore the authenticity and truthfulness of alternative narratives. It is not an accident that much of the narrative war is being fought on social media. Social media is fertile ground for having one sided debate. For the elites, it is a place where captured attention can be exchanged for dollars and because of it, careful analysis, and nuance—arguably the most important characteristics of intellectuals—are disincentivised.

Even if we disagree on where we started and how we got here, we could at least agree on where we are heading. Denialism, lack of empathy, and cancel-culture are the last traits we should carry into this debate, not only because people’s lives are at stake, but also the future of Ethiopia as a state. Good faith debate based on shared facts and shared goals are required if the historical Ethiopia is to survive another century.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

Editor’s note: Please note that the piece was first published on September 30. While the authors updated it over the past month, the conflict in Ethiopia has now accelerated to a civil war. We plan to provide more up-to-date coverage. Meanwhile, we recommend this statement by a group of scholars and researchers from the Horn of Africa.

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